Anyone who has watched James Cameron’s movie Titanic will probably remember Joseph Bruce Ismay, the mustached owner of the White Star Line, sneaking off the sinking ship to cower in a lifeboat.
The image is an evocative one, but Ismay likely wasn’t quite the villain that Hollywood portrays him to be. As the most senior official of the company that survived the disaster, Ismay was universally loathed in the press at the time, but historians argue that the anger wasn’t because Ismay made the decision not to clutter the deck with lifeboats.1 Rather, people were upset because he made a choice to survive rather than to heroically go down with the ship (or, as the Washington Post wrote at his death he: “allow[ed] himself to be rescued”). Ismay was hated because he lived.
Check out the book by Frances Wilson, How to Survive the Titanic or The Sinking of J. Bruce Ismay for a more detailed account of Ismay and his survival of the disaster.
Keep that image of J. Bruce Ismay in mind. This was a man who aimed to revolutionize the luxury and comfort of ocean travel. He took the shipping line created by his father and made it bigger, better, and more luxurious than the world had ever seen. If not for an iceberg and a lifeboat in the north Atlantic seas, his legacy would have been far different. Instead, he retired from public life, and his family never really moved on from the tragedy. The Titanic became a forbidden topic of discussion.2
But this was the era of ocean travel, and the Ismay family continued to be touched maritime disaster; disaster that also managed to reach into the land locked Windermere Valley in south-eastern British Columbia.
Two years after the Titanic sank, Canada had its own tragedy. On the night of May 29, 1914 the Norwegian coal ship the Storstad collided with the Empress of Ireland in the St. Lawrence river. The Empress sank in less than fifteen minutes, taking with her over 1000 passengers and crew.
Back in Great Britain, J. Bruce Ismay and his family would have been devastated by news of the sinking. Not only did the Empress tragedy have certain parallels to the Titanic; one of her passengers was closely related to the family. Just a few weeks before the Titanic sank, Ismay’s eldest daughter had married one Captain Ronald Cheape, and Cheape’s older sister, Catherine Beatrice Cay (nee Cheape), was on the Empress when she went down.
Catherine Cay, known as Katie, was going back to England to visit her mother, and would presumably see her brother and his family as well. She had purchased her ticket for the Empress of Ireland in Golden B.C., traveling from Thunderhill Ranch near Canal Flats where she had been living with her husband. If you’ve traveled through Canal Flats you’ve passed through Thunderhill; it’s right before the bridge where you cross the Columbia River, around the turn off to Blue Lake.
When the Empress went down, news spread quickly, with rumor reaching the Windermere Valley within hours. That rumor was confirmed the next day. Up at Ellenvale Ranch (now K2 Ranch), Charles Ellis records the events of May 30:
Very warm day… About 4 o’clock “Stamps” Mr. Cay’s man came along on his way up the creek to fetch Mr. Cay. “Stamps” had messages to say that the “Empress of Ireland” had sunk with nearly all on board and that Mrs Cay was among the missing. Walter [Stoddart] got Fireworks and rode up the trail 8 miles with the man “Stamps”. When they met Mr. Cay coming down he was crazed with grief and at once went on to Thunderhill and we returned home to Ellenvale. Walter … went down to Invermere and sent [Godfrey] Vigne up to Thunderhill with his car for Mr. Cay where he went the next morning to Golden.3
Catherine’s body was never found, and is likely one of the many that remains entombed in the ship. Her name appears on the Cheape family memorial in Strathmiglo Cemetery in Strathmiglo, Fife, Scotland.
We don’t know exactly how J. Bruce Ismay reacted to the sinking of the Empress of Ireland. We don’t know if his son-in-law carefully tiptoed around the subject of his sister’s death, or if the two found connection in a shared experience.
What we do know is that with the start of the First World War, memory of the time Mr. and Mrs. Cay spent in the Windermere Valley gradually faded. Mr. Cay’s rushed and frantic departure was the last time he would see British Columbia. Just a couple of months later the First World War broke out, and he died fighting in Egypt. His name remains on the memorial plaque in the Invermere Community Hall.
When J. Bruce Ismay died in October 1937, his obituaries echoed the prominent place the Titanic continued to hold in the popular imagination. Meanwhile the Empress of Ireland was one of countless other maritime disasters that faded into obscurity. It’s only recently that the Empress has been widely commemorated, and passengers’ stories have been told.
If you’re interested in learning more about Ismay or the Empress of Ireland, check out the links below. As always, comments and feedback are welcome.
Alex Weller is a soon-to-be graduate from the Masters of Public History program at Western University. She has worked and traveled around the world and enjoys sharing interesting historical connections, particularly when they are related to her hometown of Invermere B.C.
1. Interestingly enough, the British Board of Trade only required 16 lifeboats on the Titanic. Ismay put on 18, meaning that by the standards of the day, he was actually being overly cautious.
2. Sarah Travers, “Family of Titanic’s owner, J Bruce Ismay, make plea,” BBC Newsline, April 13, 2012. http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-northern-ireland-17694824
3. Charles Ellis, The Diary of Charles Ellis, 1914, May 30, 1914. Windermere Valley Museum and Archives, Charles Ellis Fonds.
Amy Blanchford, “Empress of Ireland, ‘Canada’s Titanic,’ finally getting its due after 100 years,” The Globe and Mail (May 23, 2014) http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/empress-of-ireland-canadas-titanic-finally-getting-its-due-after-100-years/article18819164/?page=all (A thorough overview of the Empress disaster)
Canadian Pacific Railway, Empress of Ireland Passenger and Crew List, First Cabin. Published 1914. http://sea-viewdiving.com/shipwreck_info/empress_home/passengerlist/page2.htm (Includes entry for Miss (sic) C.B. Cay)
“Mr. Joseph Bruce Ismay,” Encyclopedia Titanica. http://www.encyclopedia-titanica.org/titanic-survivor/j-bruce-ismay.html (Includes links to primary source news articles on Ismay. The obituaries from October 1937 are particularly interesting)
NPR Staff, “‘How To Survive The Titanic,’ And Sink Your Name,” NPR Books, Oct 15, 2011 http://www.npr.org/2011/10/15/141328305/how-to-survive-the-titanic-and-sink-your-name
Sarah Travers, “Family of Titanic’s owner, J Bruce Ismay, make plea,” BBC Newsline, April 13, 2012. http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-northern-ireland-17694824 (Includes interviews with Catherine’s nephew and great-nephew).
Alex Weller, “Thunderhill Ranch,” Ranches in the Windermere Valley, Windermere Valley Museum and Archives, 2013, p. 31. http://www.windermerevalleymuseum.ca/Documents/Ranches%20in%20the%20Windermere%20Valley.pdf